In this first extract from his new book on the Catholic literary revival, Father Ian Ker examines Evelyn Waugh's attitude towards priestly ministry and his love of the punctiliously exact nature of the Catholic faith
Waugh's travel book NinetyTwo Days (1934) paved the way for his next novel, A Handful of Dust (1934). This account of his travels in Guiana and Brazil contains a loving portrait of an English Jesuit missionary priest whom the novelist encountered out in the desolate loneliness of the savannah and who gave him help and hospitality. Father Mather is also a highly symbolic figure for understanding Waugh as a Catholic novelist. For Father Mather was not only a priest; he was also an extremely accomplished craftsman.
He was at work in his carpenter :s shop when we arrived and came out to
greet us, dusting the shavings off his khaki shirt and
trousers, and presenting a complete antithesis of the "wily Jesuit" of popular tradition. ... He is a skilled
and conscientious craftsman; everything he does,
from developing films to making saddles, is done with patient accuracy.
Most of the simple furniture of the living-room was his wank — flint, finely joint ed and fitted, delicately finished, a marked contrast to the botched makeshift stuff that prevailed even in .Georgetown.
There is a striking note of hero worship in Waugh's depiction of this unsophisticated missionary priest, a very different kind of Jesuit from the brilliant Father Martin D' Arcy who had received Waugh into the Catholic Church at the fashionable Mayfair church in Farm Street. D'Arcy's later written account of the instructions he gave Waugh emphasised both how "matter of fact" he was in his approach to Catholicism and also how he "never spoke of experience or feelings", being simply interested in the exact doctrines he was required to believe. As a theological "craftsman", D'Arcy's careful outline of Catholicism would have been superior to anything Father Mather could have offered. But Mather had one considerable advantage over his learned colleague — he was literally a craftsman, with a "workshop where every kind of odd job in leather, iron and wood was brilliantly performed." Considering the boredom and depression that beset Waugh's adult life. one is tempted to speculate whether those days with Father Mather in his mission were not among the happiest of his life: "They were peaceful and delightful days. Mass at seven ... then Father Mather would go off to his workshop ... Breakfast at noon and then Father Mather returned to his business ..."
Where a craft or job is well done, there will be order (of a sort) in Waugh's world: not only is Father Mather an accomplished craftsman with his hands, doing thoroughly worthwhile practical jobs, but he is also a craftsman in his little church at the altar, punctiliously performing the job that (in Waugh's view) is the highest of all jobs, which again not only involves using his hands at the crucial point of the consecration but a job that proclaims meaning and order in a • world created and redeemed by Christ. Waugh does not say so, but Father Mather, who represents Christ ("alter Christus") at the altar, also practises the trade of carpentry which the divine craftsman had himself practised before beginning his work. And then finally there is the order of routine where every day follows a prescribed pattern —"1 have a longing," as Waugh had written three years before, "for some kind of routine in my life."
In 1948 Waugh recalled: "It took me years to begin to glimpse what the Church was like. ... and it was chiefly missionaries who taught me." Perhaps indeed it was the unknown Father Mather, rather than the renowned Father D' Arcy, who was Waugh's real instructor in the faith. And perhaps it was the sight of Father Mather in his little church made of fin and thatch, with his scanty congregation kneeling on the mud floor, rather than the splendid liturgy of fashionable Farm Street that made the deepest impression on the young convert. For as Waugh explained in a letter to a Catholic newspaper at the time of the liturgical changes of Vatican LI: I was not at all attracted by the splendour of her great ceremonies — which the Protestants could well counterfeit. Of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stwnping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man ivith a job which he alone was qualified to do. That is the Mass I have grown to know and love.
It seems that Ninety-Two Days, one of Waugh's least read books, contains the key to understanding his Catholicism — or at least how it affected his imagination and shaped his later novels augh`s masterpiece is the Sword of Honour trilogy (1966), comprising Men at Arms (1952), Officers and
Gentlemen (1955), • and Unconditional Surrender (1961).
At the outbreak of World War II. Waugh recorded in his diary: "My inclinations are all to join the army as a private ... Nothing would be more likely than work in a government office to finish me as a writer; nothing more Wcely to stimulate me than a complete change of habit."
In actual fact, a civil service job would surely have led to a marvellous satire on the world of bureaucracy; but Waugh was to have enough contact with the workings of Whitehall in his search for an army posting to provide him with the materials he needed. The anny was a different matter to learn what it is to be a soldier involves being one. And Waugh's choice was certainly inspired, as soldiering appealed more powerfully than perhaps any other job could have done to the two opposing sides of his personality. For on the one hand, nothing could he more disciplined, more ordered. more routinebound, than drilling on the parade ground; whereas, on the other hand, nothing was more anarchic and chaotic than a defeated army in headlong retreat. Both these aspects of army life were to be described from within and from personal experience in the trilogy.
On joining the Halberdiers, Guy Crouchback immediately falls in love with their ordered traditions and formalities. At dinner in the mess, he is fascinated by exactly the kind of detail which thrilled the craftsman in Waugh: "The removal of the cloth was a feat of dex
terity which never failed to delight Guy. The corporal-ofservants stood at the foot of the table. The mess orderlies lifted the candlesticks. Then with a single flick of his wrists the corporal drew the whole length of linen into an avalanche at his feet." The trilogy abounds in such detailed descriptions of army life. Waugh positively revels in the esoteric, monotonous, mechanical manoeuvres of the parade-ground: "The odd numbers of the front rank will seize the rifles of the even numbers of the rear rank with the left hand crossing the muzzles, magazines turned outward, at the same time raising the piling swivels with the forefinger and thumb of both hands ..."
Closely juxtaposed to this display of military craft by Guy is the visit he makes at the end of the parade to a Catholic church in Alexandria, where exactly the same sort of abrupt routine characterises his going to confession: A bearded face was just visible through the grille; a guttural voice blessed him. He made his confession and paused. The dark figure seemed to shrug off the triviality of what he had heard.
"You have a rosary? Say three decades."
He gave the absolution. "Thank you, father and pray for me."
The craftsman has done his job according to the rubrics; that is all that matters, as Waugh emphasises by indicating that the priest is a spy who, with his job done, tries to start up a conversation with Guy in the confessional.
Guy aLso lives in another world from that of the world of war. In the prologue to Men at Arms, we learn that Guy belongs to an old Catholic family. with an ancestral home at Broome, now let to a con"vent school, but "the sanctuary lamp" in the chapel "still burned at Broome as of old". Like the sanctuary lamp at Brideshead, it was not "a thing of great antiquity," just "something" Guy's grandmother had picked up in Rome. It was in this sense that the "phrase, often used of Broome, that its sanctuary lamp had never been put out" was only "figurative".
But while it was not literally the smite lamp that had burned through penal times, the point that the Broome chapel had never been devoid of the Blessed Sacrament was the literal truth and nOt at all "figura
tive". It was not the artifact of the lamp, or even the tabemack, that counted — it was almost appropriate that they should be things of little value — when the "artifact" that they indicated and contained was the real artifact that alone mattered — the handiwork of the priest-craftsman.
Men at Arms opens with Guy going to confession in Italy before leaving for England to join up in the war — "On an impulse. not because his conscience troubled him but because it was a habit learned in childhood to go to confession before a journey."
What would seem to many to be mechanical and superficial strongly appeals to Waugh's imagination: routine prescribes a clear-cut job to be done and the job is done without fuss but according to rule:
There was no risk of going deeper than the denunciations of his few infractions of law, of his habitual weaknesses. Into that wasteland where his soul languished he need not, could not, enter He had no words to describe it. There were no words in any language ...
The priest gave him absolution and the tradi
tional words of dismissal...and he answered ... He rose from his knees, said three "aves"...and passed through the leather curtain into the blazing sunlight ...
There is the matter-of-factness too of Catholic practice, which contrasts in a later scene, when Guy is staying with his sister, Angela, with the Protestantism of his brother-in-law: "Mass is at eight," said Angela. "We ought to start at twenty to. ..."
"Oh I say, isn't there something later? I was looking forward to a long lie."
"I thought we might all go to communion tomorrow Do come, Tony."
"All right, Mum, of course I will. Only make it twenty-five to in that case. I shall have to scrape after weeks of wickedness."
Box-Bender looked selfconscious, as he still did, always, when religious practices were spoken of He did not get used to it — this ease with the Awful, Similarly, Guy's father, Mr Crouchback, "went to mass every day, walking punctually down the High Street before the shops were open; walking punctually back as the shutters were coming down, with a word of greeting for everyone he passed".
Due to fly to Croatia, Guy once again goes to confession in Italy. The dialogue between priest and penitent is intentionally comical, but it is not satire on Waugh's part. What he knows will shock his Protestant readers is by the same token what he so much admires — the matter-of-fact, indeed the mechanical, the concrete, the punctiliously exact, the cut-and dried nature of Catholicism, which brings divine order into the chaos and uncertainty of human life: "Father I wish to die."
"Yes. How many times?"
The obscure figure behind the grille leant nearer What was it you wished to do?"
"Yes. You have attempted suicide?"
"Of what, then, are you accusing yourself? To wish to die is quite usual today. It may even he a very good disposition. You do not accuse yourself of despair?"
"No, father; presumption. I am nor fit to die."
"There is no sin there. This is a mere scruple. Make an act of contrition for all the unrepented sins of your past life."
After the Absolution he said: "Are you a foreigner?"
"Can you spare a few cigarettes?"
Two things should be noted about the request of the priest: first, it illustrates again the way in which the mundane and natural co-exist so easily with the supernatural; and second, while the priest shows himself a thoroughly skilled craftsman in the business of hearing confessions, he remains utterly human, even sinful, in spite of the nature of his artifact (divine absolution), in exploiting the sacramental occasion for his own material
gain but his character remains entirely irrelevant to his competence in his craft.
Similarly, the Irish priest in the town where the Halberdier barracks is situated to which Guy is first sent is not only unenthusiastic about the Allied cause, but after Mass accosts Guy to get a list of the Catholic soldiers, ostensibly for the bishop but in fact, as Guy icily observes, because in the absence of a Catholic chaplain the parish priest gets a capitation grant from the War Office.
Meanwhile, in London at Westminster Cathedral, his divorced wife Virginia, who has decided to become a Catholic in the hope that Guy will take her back, is also going to confession at about the same time. It is her first confession: "She told everything; fully, accurately. without extenuation or elaboration." This is exactly the kind of convert Waugh approved of — not emotional but matterof-fact and to the point —like himself. "The recital of half a lifetime's mischief took less than five minutes. 'Thank God for your good and humble confession,' the priest said. She was shriven."
Virginia herself had been furious with Guy when, during an encounter much earlier, he had suggested that, since in the eyes of his Church they are still husband and wife, there would be nothing wrong in their sleeping together: "1 thought you'd chosen me specially, add by God you had. Because I was the only woman in the whole world your priests would let you go to bed with. That was my attraction. You ... pig." Such a legalistic Catholicism might appal a later generation of Catholics, but Waugh loves the precise definitions of this kind of' theological formalism.
During the early training, when the Halberdiers are thrown into "chaos" by the sudden need in 1940 to send a battalion of regulars immediately to reinforce the retreating British forces in France, order is, as it were, restored on Sunday mornings when a priest, "untroubled by the 'flap'", conies to say Mass, "and for three-quarters of an hour all was peace".
In Unconditional Surrender, by contrast, we are presented with the modern secular humanist, Everard Spruce, the founder and editor of Survival, who, "despite the title of his monthly review", believed "that the human race was destined to dissolve in chaos"; the magazine is professedly "devoted 'to the Survival of Values—, but for Waugh such abstractions as values are the inevitable recipe for chaos, unlike the sacrifice of the Mass where something happens, something is done by a craftsman who through his actions restores order and peace.
The Catholic Revival in English Literature by Father Ian Ker will be available from Gracewing (tel. 01568 616835) later this month, priced 1'14.99